Ask any mountain fanatic where it all began and they’ll likely tell you about a family trip, school excursion or adventure with friends once upon a time, long ago. The details of each story will vary, but all will share a selective amnesia capable of transforming inclement weather, soggy gear and sore muscles into an intense, unexplainable yearning to hit the trail and do it all again.
Junko Tabei spent much of her early childhood playing among the colourful myrtles and maples of Fudo-yama, a hill just up the road from her family’s home in a rural corner of Fukushima Prefecture. She and her siblings would swing Tarzan-like on the vines, hide among the pink of blooming azaleas and hang hammocks from the tree branches. Tabei recalls climbing to the top of Fudo-yama, where she could spot a distant building she believed was home to the Emperor of Japan. She later discovered the palatial structure was one of many temples that adorned the countryside, but the experience was enough to spark her deep passion for a life in the mountains.
“Standing on that small summit was enough to show me what lay beyond my hometown—a moment when the flicker of aspiration ignited,” she writes in “Honouring High Places,” an English-language collection of Tabei’s most heartfelt, insightful and inspirational writings about mountains, teamwork and perseverance.
Tabei attained celebrity status in Japan following her 1975 ascent of Mt. Everest. At 35 years old, she was the first woman to climb the world’s highest peak, marking a seismic shift in the world of high-altitude mountaineering. Tabei would later become the first woman to complete the Seven Summits by climbing to the highest point on every continent. She became an ambassador for women in sport and served as a lifelong advocate for the preservation and protection of mountain environments around the world.
“Honouring High Places” can get mired in the minutia of expedition planning and camp life, but the book excels when it comes to showing the emotional toll exacted by high-altitude expeditions. Amidst the details of camp life emerges a deeply personal look at the complex and sometimes volatile relationships between expedition members.
Tabei shuns the sugar coating. She is unafraid to present the misunderstandings, conflict and resentment that accompany each expedition. Such transparency led many critics in Japan to pan Tabei and her team’s account of the 1970 Ladies Climbing Club expedition to Annapurna III in Nepal as too stark and too direct, accusations which Tabei dismisses as a disservice to the sport.
“Over the years, I had heard many male-only expeditions tolerate unfriendly incidents, like someone having his teeth broken because he was hit by a teammate, a climber stamping his crampon-clad foot on another climber in outrage, or loud verbal arguments between leader and team members dispatched over the radio,” Tabei writes. “Yet, when the trip summaries were published not a word of such stories was written. I find there is a vanity to that kind of presentation.”
In the years preceding her death at age 77 in October 2016, Tabei devoted much of her energy and enthusiasm to helping survivors of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. By speaking to and spending time with people in emergency shelters and temporary housing, Tabei discovered many residents suffered from debilitating levels of boredom.
They yearned to get outside.
Through an organization called Hiking into Nature, Tabei led monthly hiking and snowshoeing excursions amidst the hills and valleys of her native prefecture.
A growing interest among younger evacuees encouraged Tabei to organize more rigorous trips, including expeditions to the summit of Mt. Fuji.
Despite frequent hospital visits and chemotherapy to treat the cancer overtaking her body, Tabei retained her passion
for the mountains. She continued to pursue her goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country and worked for the betterment of communities in the Everest region. It was on one such visit to Nepal that she glimpsed the great mountain for the last time.
“On a return trip to Nepal in September 2015 to celebrate 40 years after I had reached the summit of Mt. Everest,” Tabei writes, “I stood on a hilltop at 3,900 metres with my friends and family around. Looking towards the giant peak I said, “How could I have climbed that mountain? Young and bold I was….”